The author, a geologist and founding member of the team that discovered “Lucy” in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression, describes the field conditions and camp intrigues during the field season that preceded the discovery of the three-million-year-old human skeleton by Don Johanson in late 1974. Mr. Kalb, then a resident of the country, led explorations in the fossil-rich Awash Valley until he was expelled from the country by the Mengistu regime in mid-1978, accompanying allegations that he spied for the CIA.
“Famine and Fame”
At the end of June 1973, I received a telegram from the director of FORGE telling me that I had been awarded $4200, which I would receive immediately, and that the additional $2500 I requested would be given later. Over the next three months I returned to the field and surveyed more areas in the Awash and on the Hararghe escarpment. I was joined at various times by Dennis, Kelati and one Antiquities Administration representative or another, and we were always picking up guides here and there. Since our last fieldwork together, Kelati had married a Tigrayan girl he had met at Camp Arba, who was now pregnant. It must have been something we drank in the Awash, because soon Judy was expecting as well.
We began by surveying areas along the southern escarpment that Schönfeld described as late Miocene, but we found very few fossils and none readily indicative of their age. Much of the area was wooded, and outcrops were scarce. On one occasion, as we were crossing a stream, I spotted a modern human skull at the bottom of several meters of recent river gravels, suggesting that some hapless soul had been swept into a torrent. Another time, we were sitting on a riverbank eating lunch when I realized that human teeth were scattered all around us. Of more vital interest were reports of tribal skirmishes in the area. Because of its geography at the interface between lowland and highland tribes, the escarpment lends itself to territorial disputes. In this case the cause of friction was more pervasive: A widespread drought had struck the lowlands, and the Afar, Kariyu, and Issa were pushing their herds into higher and higher elevations, seeking forage.
Moving down into the Awash Valley, we found dried-up waterholes with dead livestock swarming with vultures. Even wildlife in the nearby Awash National Park was dying. Along the river we came upon recently abandoned Afar encampments littered with the bones of domestic animals, apparently killed as a last resort for food. Up and down the valley the story was the same. Freshly dug graves were present around settlements and towns, and there were reports of widespread cholera and some typhus. I later came down with typhus, and I am convinced that our guide Ali Axinum had cholera when Dennis and I picked him up in Millé. He soon started throwing up black vomit and had acute diarrhea, signs of the disease. We took him to the Trapp clinic at Camp Arba and probably once again saved his life.
The “small” rains of February and March had never come. The drought, apparently part of a larger cycle of diminished rains across the Horn of Africa, caused severe crop failure and livestock loss. The highland towns of Bati and Dessie that we drove through in Wallo Province, the area hardest hit, would eventually fill with thousands of refugees. Relief workers made dire predictions of widespread food shortages. But for myself and many others at the time, it was hard to grasp just how bad the situation was, because by some definitions the lowlands are always in a state of drought. Furthermore, the Ethiopian government did not seem overly concerned.
Over the months I had received a number of letters from Johanson, who in the fall of 1972 had accepted a teaching position at Case Western Reserve University while still finishing his dissertation. His letters concerned his intrigues with Coppens and Taieb, funding, and plans to visit Addis Ababa in the summer before returning to the Omo. Our expedition into the Afar with an expanded team was still planned for the fall. I was particularly interested in discussing plans for the “Center” with him and in learning the specifics of his NSF grant and what support it would provide me. I knew his proposal had been funded some months previously with a reduced budget, but Johanson had not been forthcoming about the details. First he said he was coming to Ethiopia in June, then it was early July; next he wrote to say the approval of his dissertation was held up pending major revisions, and he would not be in Addis Ababa until later in August. Twice I made the long, disruptive drive from the field to meet him, at considerable cost in time and limited grant money, only to receive word days later that he was delayed. In July I took one of his graduate students, Tom Gray, to the field at more expense, and when Johanson showed up early in September, en route to a conference in Nairobi, I was not in a very understanding mood. Nor was he because the problems with his dissertation had killed his plans for returning to the Omo.
We had a colossal blowup.
Suddenly we seemed to disagree on just about everything—from my perspective, his secretive handling of his NSF funding, the disturbing news that Karl Butzer had resigned from the project over related issues, the Land Rover I sold him, equipment, and his relationship with Taieb and Coppens. I accused Johanson of breaking past agreements and causing divisiveness on our team, and he accused me of his own litany of abuses. Shortly he left for Nairobi. On his return several weeks later we more or less patched things up, but from then on I was no longer tolerant of his dark moods and intrigues.
In early October 1973, the International Afar Research Expedition left for the field in four Land Rovers loaded with 18 people: eight Frenchmen, Johanson, his two students, myself, Dennis Peak, an Antiquities representative, a cook, a field assistant, and two Afar guides we picked up en route. Among the French, aside from Taieb and Coppens, were Claude Guérin, a paleontologist, three field technicians, a mechanic, and a documentary filmmaker. Johanson’s worst fears had come true: The expedition was “crawling with frogs,” and they were going to make a film of it.
Our first stop, Geraru, was a new site Dennis and I had found in July, lying 40 kilometers south of Tendaho. It was only 5 kilometers square but consists of tens of meters in thickness of deeply eroded sediments containing abundant fossils, and numerous volcanic tuffs. The site is bounded on two sides by basalts, the Geraru stream crosses its southern end, and a gravel-capped plateau lies at its northern end, where we made camp. The strata are intensely chopped up by crisscrossing faults that made its stratigraphy impossible to decipher during the week we were there. Nevertheless, the paleontologists and anthropologists collected 200 fossils from 28 localities, which Dennis and I diligently mapped, as part of my responsibility to document each locality geographically. Guérin, an expert on fossil horses and rhinos, and Coppens thought that Geraru was between 2 and 3 millions years old.
That first week everything went smoothly, with everyone collecting things, measuring things, mapping things, taking photographs and notes, making drawings, cataloging, and at night drinking the bottles of brandy and whiskey that people had brought with them, and smoking things.
In mid-October, we moved camp to another new site, Amado, that an Afar guide told me about. Located 45 kilometers northwest of Geraru, Amado is half the size of Geraru and lies in the upper Millé River basin, just south of a 1600-meter volcano called Gura Ale. Amado is noteworthy for its thick, fluviatile, crystalline tuffs containing beautiful translucent fossil wood and hundreds of monkey and baboon fossils. Coppens and Guérin judged the elephants and rhinos to be between 3 and 4 million years old. Some of the associated sediments looked like hot spring deposits, and the fossil wood looked like palm. Together the geology and fossils suggested a proto-Millé River passing through a forested area, perhaps with adjoining hot springs, at the time when monkeys, baboons, other animals, trees, and volcanic ash were swept into the river. By analogy, there is today, at the foot of Fantale volcano in the Afar funnel, a small palm forest surrounding hot springs that drain into the Awash River. Baboons live around the springs, and monkeys inhabit the gallery forest along the river.
In five days at Amado we collected nearly 400 fossils, a quarter of them monkeys. At this point Coppens and Guérin returned to Addis Ababa and then France, where Coppens had urgent business. The rest of us moved on to Hadar, stopping en route at Camp 270 for repairs on Maurice’s Land Rover. That night we ate dinner with our German friends in the camp mess and then retired to the “Amoeba Bar,” overlooking the Awash, for a few beers. The bar, a small building with a wooden verandah, was built on the hill above the camp by an enterprising merchant from Millé named Ephrem. He made a killing catering to thirsty Germans and Ethiopians and later opened another bar in Bati, in addition to a bar and cafe he owned in Millé.
After a few beers, Johanson, Taieb, and a few others retired to one of the thatch huts that had sprung up around the camp. It was here that the “girlfriends” lived—a handful of prostitutes brought in from Bati to help the Germans and Ethiopian highlanders overcome the boredom of desert life. In the semidarkness before dawn, the women could be seen in their brightly colored dresses, returning to their lodgings from the camp sleeping quarters. After checking on the status of our expedition cook, Kebede, who was down with malaria, I joined my colleagues and found them in one of the huts having a grand old time drinking beer, dancing, and fooling around with the women. Just then we heard a terrible ruckus on the road. We raced out of the hut to find Joseph, one of our guides, fully drunk and sitting behind the wheel of Maurice’s Land Rover, with the motor running. Somehow Joseph had pinched the keys, apparently from the repair shop, and had been driving around camp crazily until he was stopped by one of the Germans, who was trying to coax him out of the vehicle. Maurice instantly appraised the situation and flew into a rage, dragging Joseph out of the Land Rover and screaming at him as Joseph screamed back.
Now, Joseph was my prized linguist. I had hired him during the summer because he spoke the languages of the Hararghe escarpment: Itu Oromo, Adere, Somali, and Afar, as well as Amharic, Greek, French, English, and some German. As he explained it to me, his mother was part Itu and part Somali Issa, and his father was part Afar and part Greek from Dire Dawa, the largest town in Hararghe, where Joseph was born and where Adere is spoken. There Joseph received a secondary education and learned English and French. Later he moved from town to town on the escarpment with his father, who worked for the French-run railroad. I met Joseph in Arba, where he had been employed for several years by the Trapp Company, just after they had fired him for drinking, a problem he apparently still had. Another problem: When he got drunk, Joseph could never keep his languages straight, so when he was yelling at Maurice that night he sounded like a meeting at the United Nations.
The next morning I had a heart-to-heart talk with Joseph and fired him. I liked Joseph and later saw him on occasion in Addis Ababa, where he sometimes worked as a tourist guide. From time to time he would drop by the office when he was out of work. I would hire him for the odd chore around town, and he would further my knowledge of Ethiopian ethnography, about which he knew much. The last time I saw him, he greeted me as he was coming out of the Hilton Hotel while escorting some elderly German tourists. He had picked up a sport coat somewhere that was about five sizes too big for him. Joseph may have been imperfect, but the man was unique. And the disruption he caused that night at Camp 270 probably saved some of my colleagues from catching the clap.
We stayed at Hadar for nearly two months; expedition members and visitors came and went. Our sprawling camp with my large open work tent in the center overlooked one of the widely looping meanders of the Awash. The view north was of the Hadar badlands; to the south we overlooked the steady, brown waters of the river, its sentinel forest, and the distant hills in the greater Meshellu basin. I thought Hadar was beauty itself, with all of its mysteries and promises of discovery at arm’s length. It was not really a question of “making a discovery” at Hadar; rather it was a matter of which one you chose to record in your notebook, or in the fossil catalog, or on a map. There were also the smells of the Awash to take notice of, the chill left over from nightfall, and the scarlet sunrise creeping its way across the eastern sky at dawn.
I was never happy about our scientific method on this expedition—people running around collecting fossils, carting them off to camp, and then moving on to the next locality to collect more fossils. All the while, Dennis and I were playing catch-up to map the geographical and stratigraphical position of fossil localities. Sloppy stuff, and Geraru was the worst. With the multiple faults there, we scarcely had a clue as to where we were stratigraphically from one locality to the next. Ideally, the stratigraphy should be worked out before fossils are collected, making it possible to pay greater attention to geological context. I was determined to make stratigraphy my first priority at Hadar. Maurice and I were supposed to do this together, but he had a problem delegating authority and was always bouncing around attending to vehicles and supplies and keeping his field assistants busy.
Hadar is cut by a modest number of faults, by Afar standards, and is not complicated in this respect. Nor, unlike Amado, does it have the complex time breaks or unconformities; that is major pieces of the geological section are not eroded away, except in the uppermost levels. Hadar is what geologists call “layer-cake geology.” The strata are nearly flat-lying, and distinctive marker beds used for correlation purposes—tuffs, sandstones, shell beds, and colored clays—can be traced over wide distances. Using a 2-meter piece of string with knots tied in it every 10 centimeters, a measuring stick, a compass and level, and an army shovel, it took me two weeks to determine that there were approximately 160 meters in thickness of exposed strata in the main Hadar area.
By the end of the field season, Dennis and I had mapped the location and stratigraphical position of all 79 fossil-collecting localities that had been established. Fossils recovered from Locality 120, for instance, were eroding from a thick sand layer 9 meters below a distinctive green clay in the northern part of the site; fossils from Locality 131 were eroding from sands directly above a gray clay in the southern part of the site; and so on. All told, we measured and described 51 geological sections that we correlated from one place to the other using 17 marker beds. Because Maurice returned to France midway through the field season to complete his dissertation, the description of the Hadar stratigraphy contained in his dissertation was far from complete. When he finally published the stratigraphy of Hadar three years later, it was nearly identical to the version I had given him at the end of the 1973 field season. At the time, such differences in our work product was not an issue: I understood the limitations on Maurice’s time and, especially, the continuing distractions caused by Johanson.
Don was an unending source of divisiveness and tension in camp, except at night when he was stoned. Then he would relax by sitting around the work tent spewing out his latest gossip or dirt about researchers far and near. Johanson was unsurpassed at saying something in an offhand manner, with just the precise amount of innuendo. On one occasion, he told an elaborate story about how a Belgian geologist working in the Omo with the American team mysteriously lost his field notebook, “just as the time that Coppens was visiting camp . . .” More than once his stories would gravitate to Richard Leakey. Johanson was beside himself over Richard’s latest headline-making find at Lake Turkana, the famous “1470 skull” of an early Homo, announced in November of 1972. Named after its catalog number, the skull helped confirm one of Louis Leakey’s career doctrines, the great antiquity of the genus Homo, originally reported from the lowest levels of Olduvai. Johanson reveled in Richard’s subsequent problems in dating 1470, which was first dated radiometrically at 2.6 million years but was later proved to be 700,000 years younger.
Looking back for insights that might explain Johanson’s particular disdain for Coppens and Taieb, I recall one early episode that I thought was especially telling. On occasion at night, Johanson would bring out the novel he was reading, which that season was The Stranger by Albert Camus. One evening he asked Coppens to explain a particularly complex passage to him.
“Ah, but you must be French to understand that book,” Coppens said.
Later, when Johanson asked Taieb about the same passage, he replied, “Ah, but you must be Algerian to understand that book.”
Some days went by, and again and again he would ask Coppens or Taieb questions about the book, and always he would receive the same answer. “Ah, but you must be . . .”
I could sense Johanson’s frustration and anger. Then one morning, just before daybreak, I was crawling out of my mosquito net when I heard two people near the cook’s tent engaged in heated discussion. It was too dark to see, so I crept up to listen. I was taken aback to recognize one of the voices as Johanson’s, because he was seldom up before breakfast. “You must explain that passage to me,” he was saying, “or you will be sorry, very sorry.”
“But Mr. Don,” the other voice replied, “I haven’t read the book. I don’t even read!” What the hell? I realized he was talking to Kebede, the cook! I was shocked.
“You’re lying, I know you can read! I’ve seen you reading grocery lists,” Johanson hissed.
“No, Mr. Don, please, another time, please. I’m begging you, I must fix breakfast for the camp.”
“I warned you, Kebede, I warned you!”
Realizing that something terrible was about to happen, I leaped from behind the tent just in time to see Johanson spit into the pancake batter.
“No, Mr. Don—no, no, you’ll poison the entire camp!” Kebede screamed.
At that moment I awoke covered in sweat. God, I had been having a horrible nightmare. But just to make sure, I got up to check on Kebede. Sure enough, there he was, just getting out of his tent to start preparing breakfast.
At the end of October, Maurice and I loaded two vehicles with colleagues and crew and left to survey areas west of camp along the Gona and Busidima rivers, leaving Johanson alone at Hadar for the first time, with his two students. From the Busidima, Maurice and I made our way north to the Bati-Assab road and then drove up to Bati on the escarpment. There I called Judy to check on the status of two more expedition participants who would be joining us: Maurice’s colleague, paleobotanist Raymonde Bonnefille, and Gudrun Corvinus, the German archeologist Maurice had recruited at the 1971 Pan-African Congress. Both had arrived in Addis Ababa on schedule and were staying with Judy. Over the telephone, we made arrangements for Maurice to meet Gudrun and Raymonde at Camp 270 in two days. The next morning, October 30, Maurice headed for the rendezvous, while Dennis and I returned to Hadar.
According to an article later published in Nature, Johanson found the expedition’s first hominid fossils that same day, discovering four partial leg bones: two joining at the knee and two upper femurs, or thighbones. He said the finds were made at two adjoining localities, L128 and L129, just west of camp along the drainages of a small stream called Denen Dora, near the base of the Hadar section, thus making the fossils among the oldest at the site. The associated fauna at that level, we then estimated, would make the hominid bones at least 3 million years old, or middle Pliocene. Most significantly, Johanson concluded from their morphology that the hominid had walked upright; given their age, the leg bones thus represented the oldest known evidence of human bipedality. From their similar size and proximity to one another, he guessed that the leg bones came from a single individual. It was an important discovery and cause for great celebration—except that Johanson made no mention of the find to Dennis or me when we returned to the camp that afternoon.
Instead of returning to Denen Dora the next morning to renew surveys of L128 and L129, Johanson took his student, Tom Gray, Dennis, and a few others to renew surveys of a different locality, L116. This was the single richest fossil locality yet found at Hadar, one located in the higher (and therefore younger) part of the stratigraphical section at the north end of Hadar. I had found the locality before leaving for Bati and had shown it to Johanson as a potential dissertation project for Gray in taphonomy, the study of processes that affect the preservation of animal remains, then a hot topic in East African research. It was late in the afternoon of October 31, after the group had moved on from L116, that Johanson told Dennis and me in camp that he had discovered hominid fossils at Denen Dora. He showed us the leg bones, which he retrieved from a small box. At the time, we assumed that he had just found the fossils, and we thought his subdued behavior was odd for someone who had just made a great discovery. He would allow no photographs of the specimens until he had “confirmed they were hominid in London or Nairobi” following the field season, and he even raised the possibility that the fossils “might be baboon.” Later, when I looked at the expedition catalog, I found that Johanson had entered the fossils simply as “primate”—not “hominid.” Our standing procedure was to catalog fossils to the nearest taxonomic level to which they could be identified. Yet in Lucy, Johanson’s book about the Hadar discoveries, he said that after picking up the specimens and examining them, he immediately recognized that they were hominid.
That evening, because it was Halloween, we celebrated the discovery by making popcorn. I was not sure whether Johanson’s find was a “trick” or a “treat.”
In Lucy, the story continues the next day, when Taieb returned from Camp 270 with Bonnefille and Corvinus. Late that afternoon Johanson led Gray to an Afar stone grave, where they removed a leg bone (a femur) to compare with the fossil leg bones, to be “absolutely sure” that the Denen Dora fossils were hominid. Later, apparently in the secrecy of his tent, Johanson compared the specimens, concluding that this was all the confirmation he needed to ensure the hominid status of the fossils: The Afar leg and the corresponding fossils leg bones were “virtually identical.” Whether Taieb was aware of the nocturnal grave robbing I do not know—I seriously doubt it—but until the end of the expedition, I believed that confirmation of the hominid identity of the fossils was to await comparative studies in London or Nairobi.
In retrospect, I gave Johanson the benefit of the doubt in many of his actions, as regards scientific matters, but on this occasion, in the context of his overall behavior, I suspected there was something rotten in Denmark.
The arrival of Corvinus and Bonnefille gave Johanson new opportunities to exercise his leadership skills. Whereas he chose to regard Corvinus as incompetent, he paid special attention to Bonnefille, with whom he still had a personal relationship from their days together in Omo.
I thought Corvinus was very competent, both as a field archeologist and as a geologist, for which she was trained in the rigorous German tradition of prehistory studies. During two field seasons with the expedition, she documented dozens of stone tool localities in the greater Hadar area. Her surveys west of Hadar during the next field season, in the upper Gona River area, resulted in the discovery of artifact-bearing deposits that have since yielded the oldest human artifacts known, 2.5 to 2.6 million years old. In Lucy, Johanson credited the initial discoveries at Gona to others, including himself, failing to recognize Corvinus’s pioneering work there, or at Hadar, which she described in two papers published in Nature.
Johanson’s particular complaint about Corvinus was her interest in the Acheulean bifaces found on the slopes of the much older deposits. The tools were characteristic of the middle Pleistocene type, about 400,000 to 700,000 years old. He regarded them as “junk.” This was not an altogether unjustified criticism, at first glance, because the stone tools were worn and patinated and were found on the surface. But what Johanson did not appreciate was that the stone tools were not quite that worn.
After Corvinus arrived at Hadar, she began carefully to search the higher levels of the site, where she thought the bifaces might have originated. In particular, she looked for their source along the contact of the plateau gravels with the underlying older Hadar strata. Soon she began finding large numbers of handaxes in even better condition than the original finds, although they were still found on the surface. Interestingly, they were not in the higher Hadar levels but at lower elevations closer to the Awash. Although she did not find their source during that field season, the next year (1974) she hit the jackpot. Of all places, it was in the Denen Dora hills, the same general area as Johanson’s hominid locality. She found fresh, sharp handaxes and associated flakes and chips raining down from a sand layer within a 10-meter wedge of stream deposits. The sequence unconformably overlay the fossil-rich Pliocene beds and was unconformably overlain by the plateau gravels. The wedge thinned and disappeared toward higher elevations, which explained why Acheulean tools were rare in the upper Hadar levels. Corvinus described the artifacts as probably representing a stone tool factory site situated on the edge of a floodplain. The river had carved into the Pliocene beds during the middle Pleistocene, depositing a fluvial terrace; in the later Pleistocene, rivers fed by intermittent highland storms eroded any overlying strata, leaving the wedge of remnant sediments buried under the gravels.
The contempt that Johanson showed for Corvinus’s work on the Acheulean was mild compared with his views on another set of stone tools she found at Denen Dora in 1974. These came from on top of and from within the plateau gravels, which she also described in her Nature papers. She identified these “plateau artifacts” as protobifaces, modified pebbles, choppers, and crude flakes, which she characterized as a “degenerate biface-flake industry.” The term degenerate referred to handaxes and other stone tools that were poorly manufactured compared with the more sophisticated Acheulean tools originating beneath the gravels. The quality of tool-making thus appeared to decline from the lower to the upper levels: Well-crafted handaxes and refined flakes beneath the gravels became “proto-handaxes” and “crudely made flakes” within and above the gravels. By analogy, Corvinus compared these disparate technologies with those described by Mary Leakey from the middle and upper beds of Olduvai. There, Acheulean bifaces lay at the same level as stone tools of a more primitive tradition called Developed Oldowan. But at Denen Dora, Corvinus described an Acheulean industry that was overlain by a “pre-Acheulean industry” made by “a somewhat later group of people.”
Could this make sense? Yes and no.
Corvinus was simply saying, although in confusing terms, that the later group of stone toolmakers put less effort into their craft than had the earlier group. It is also likely that at least some of the more worn primitive stone tools in the Denen Dora gravels originated from older (genuinely pre-Acheulean) deposits swept up by streams in the later Pleistocene. Pliocene tools from the higher levels of Gona, for instance, could have been eroded and transported by Pleistocene streams to lower levels at Hadar and elsewhere and redeposited with the younger stream gravels.
Overall, Corvinus’s work was far more right that wrong. And, as we shall see, she laid the groundwork for archeological discoveries in the Afar of an epic nature. But these were made in 1975, the year after the forces of evil caused her to abandon her pioneering work at Hadar. The last I heard, she was investigating Acheulean sites in the diamond fields of South Africa, but that was years ago.
During the first few weeks of November, Dennis and I continued work on the stratigraphy of Hadar. At one point I took Bonnefille across the Awash to see the stratigraphy along the Meshellu stream. She collected samples of a thin layer of lignite, a very low grade of coal, that I hoped would correlate with a similar layer on the north bank of the Awash, thus linking the stratigraphy on both sides of the river. Her specialty was the study of fossil pollen, called palynology. She was interested in the lignite for the abundance of pollens these deposits often preserve, which are invaluable for identifying paleofloras and reconstructing past environments.
From laboratory studies, Bonnefille later determined that the lignite and other pollen-bearing sediments from the lower Hadar beds were deposited in a treeless marsh lying next to a shallow lake or delta. By comparing the paleoflora with modern flora, Bonnefille concluded that during earlier Hadar times, some 2.9 to 3.3 million years ago, the marsh environment was more like that of the wetter, montane conditions of the present-day highlands than that of the lowlands. By contrast, the conditions during the middle Hadar period, about 2.5 to 2.8 million years ago, were comparable to the arid grasslands or subdesert steppe present today in the southern Afar. She postulated that the shift toward aridity during the later Hadar times accompanied tectonic lowering of the area by as much as a kilometer. A curious find came from a clay layer just below the Pliocene artifact levels discovered in the adjacent Gona area. There, Bonnefille had found fossil pollens from herbs and small shrubs similar to those that grow at higher altitudes, like those found today on the shady floors of bamboo forests in the uppermost Omo Valley. She was unable to explain such plants at Gona. Perhaps the hospitable Janjero people we visited in the upper Omo Valley, who live among bamboo forests, could tell us something about the first toolmakers that the rest of us could not know.
In mid-November, Maurice returned to France with his assistants, leaving a leadership vacuum, which Johanson sought to fill. I would tell the cook one thing; Johanson would tell the cook something else. I would instruct the camp attendants to do something; Johanson would tell them to do something else. No big deal. Concerning the Afar, however, his idea was to turn them into “hominid hunters,” like the Kamba tribesmen trained at Olduvai by Mary Leakey. For incentive, Johanson wanted to institute a reward system like that he said Richard Leakey used at Lake Turkana—so much money for a tooth, more for a mandible, a bonus for a skull. The problem was that Johanson did not speak the Afar language, and he had little knowledge of their culture, customs, or value systems. Another problem was that the Afar guards who were supposed to be resting during the day were now spending their time following Johanson around looking for fossils and were sleeping at night.
At the end of November thieves crept into our camp late in the night and made off with clothes, field gear, notebooks, a camera, and a medical kit and supplies belonging to a German doctor then visiting us. One of the field notebooks that was stolen belonged to Corvinus; the other belonged to Johanson. Soon, he began making remarks like “Why wasn’t Kalb’s notebooks stolen?”
That same morning the doctor, Jürgen Knoblauch, who ran the Trapp clinic at Arba, was summoned to an Afar encampment at Hourda, just east of Hadar, to treat one of our attendants who had returned there gravely ill. Most of Jürgen’s patients at Arba were Afar, and he was very familiar with their medical problems. They went to his clinic from miles around for treatment of everything from tropical ulcers to cholera. As a means of ensuring that his Afar patients would return to the clinic for follow-up treatments or medicine when needed, he required that the men leave their rifles or spears at the clinic as a reminder. As a result, every corner of the clinic was stacked with weapons, which added up to one of the more impressive arsenals in the Awash Valley.
I went with Jürgen to Hourda, where we found Mohammed, probably about 19 or 20 years old, lying on a pile of tamarisk boughs in a small clearing in the forest next to the Awash, with the morning sunlight streaking through the trees. Several men were in attendance. Mohammed’s gums and fingernails were white. Jürgen’s diagnosis was severe anemia, probably caused by chronic malaria and requiring immediate and massive doses of iron, a treatment not available in the camps medical supplies.
Mohammed died two days later. That same afternoon I went back to Hourda and watched from a distance as four Afar men buried him along the forest fringe among other graves. They were covered with dust from the digging, which stuck to their bodies as they perspired in the afternoon sun. After putting him in the ground, they stacked large stones over the grave in a circular mound, as was their custom. Just as they finished a breeze picked up, causing eddies of wind to carry off some of the loose soil around the grave.
I spent much of that week trying to run down the thieves. Using ten or so Afar from the Hourda camp, we followed their sandal prints—two sets—north to the Ledi River, then east, and then south back toward Hourda, where we lost them on the plateau gravels. Close enough: the thieves had come from the same camp as the trackers, which did not surprise me, because they were the nearest Afar around. I then spent two days locating the Afar chief for the area, Melo Seco, who happened to be in Bati. After he agreed to help, I took him back to Hadar, and from there we walked to Hourda in the late afternoon, accompanied by Dennis and our Antiquities representative, Alemayehu Asfaw. There seemed to be about 75 people in the Afar camp. It was tucked into the gallery forest where the nomads kept their livestock at night, grazing them during the day in isolated meadows up and down the river. It was a beautiful spot with the oval huts of the Afar scattered beneath the trees.
The men were waiting for us when we got there. There were about 20 of them standing in a semicircle in a clearing. Each came up in turn and kissed the hand of Melo Seco. The chief talked to them for about an hour as the sun fell below the trees. While he did so, I focused my attention on five or six Afar draped in cloths lying along the edges of the clearing. Occasionally someone would walk up to one of them and say a few words or offer a sip of water. As far as I could guess, they were ill or dying. Surely they were not starving to death from the famine before our very eyes?
Melo Seco spent the night at Hourda, and Dennis, Alemayehu, and I walked the 5 kilometers back to Hadar in the dark. Early the next morning, the chief walked into our camp with one of the thieves and another Afar carrying a few small items that had been taken. The accused was a strong, handsome young man, probably in his late teens, whom we took to Bati and put in jail. We were told that his accomplice was long gone, and we never recovered the rest of the items. The police in Bati said they would hold the young Afar in jail for a month, which was a month too long as far as I was concerned. The incident never should have happened.
That was the first and last time I had trouble with the Afar.
On December 9, 1973, the day before we packed up camp and left Hadar, Dennis and I tied the last fossil locality, L 174, into the Hadar stratigraphical section in the moonlight. We were at the northern end of the basin, racing to finish up our work during the final moments of daylight, when I found what I was looking for: an aqua-colored clay that I had used as a marker bed in the upper part of the section. As we were tracing out the clay to the fossil locality and starting to take a few measurements marking our position in the section, I dropped my prized Brunton compass and watched it tumble down a steep embankment. Like a fool, I immediately charged after it, half falling and rolling down the hill—and in the process burying the compass in the loose sediments that cascaded down with me. Dennis joined men and we searched and searched, digging through the entire hillside until it was fully dark. Finally, we sat down covered in sweat and dirt and laughed. I had waited until the last goddamned night of the field season to lose my compass. We rested a while and drained the last water in our canteens, while listening to the ubiquitous wooo-uph of hyenas that comes with nightfall. Shortly, we realized that it was getting lighter: The moon was rising in the eastern sky. After a little more searching, we clambered back up the hill and finished our work on the fossil locality in the lunar glow.
A few days after returning to Addis Ababa, I picked up a copy of the Sunday edition of the Ethiopian Herald and read,
3-Million-Year-Old Human Fossils Found in Wollo Governorate
So they were hominid after all. Taieb and Coppens read about the discovery in the Paris newspapers. Johanson had given the press conference he had so desperately wanted the previous day at the Antiquities Administration. I had actually believed that he would wait until he compared the Hadar fossils with those in Nairobi or London, as he had said he would. In Lucy, Johanson said that he had no choice but to give the press conference, because by the terms of our agreement with the Ethiopian government, “any fossil deemed important enough to be taken out of the country had to be described at a press conference before removal.”
There was a requirement that press releases be first submitted to the Ethiopian press through the Antiquities Administration, not through some other organization in the country. The Ethiopians were as aware as anyone that press announcements of scientific findings prior to confirmation of their significance would be nonsensical. They also understood that more often than not, such confirmations would have to be made at museums or laboratories outside the country. Announcements to the media could then be made anywhere—Cleveland, Nairobi, or Beirut—as long as they were first announced to the Ethiopian press through the Antiquities Administration. In short, the Ethiopians were not imbeciles.
When Johanson’s two students conversed with Ethiopian officials, they always referred to him as “Professor Johanson,” a title used in the Ethiopian Herald article. For someone who had received his Ph.D. only a few months before, Johanson was rapidly moving up in the world. The Herald also referred to him as “D. Carl Johanson,” which is how he then liked to be referred to, apparently to emulate other notables, such as L. Ron Hubbard, J. Edgar Hoover, and his mentor F. Clark Howell. Evidently, Johanson thought this would further distinguish his rising career. Professor D. Carl Johanson. A problem, of course, was that when friends of F. Clark Howell referred to Clark as “Clark,” people knew whom they were talking about, but when you referred to Don Johanson as “Carl,” people were confused.
But D. Carl had a plan to fix this.